The stress hormone cortisol can affect the brain’s hippocampus and prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain responsible for problem-solving and processing emotions and complex thoughts; this is also one of the structures targeted by Alzheimer’s. Stress decreases the amounts of a protein hormone called klotho, which helps keep brain toxins in check. Plus, stress has also been linked to cardiovascular risk, which increases Alzheimer’s risk. “Anxiety takes up a lot of space in your brain,” says Elise Caccappolo, PhD, associate professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University Medical Center. “It sort of takes over the brain, which then can’t create more memories.” Caccappolo advises patients to try yoga, meditation, acupuncture, “or just doing less and taking more off your plate” to deal with stress. And if those steps don’t work, move on to therapy or medication. “Lift that cloud and let your brain do its work,” she says.
“Loneliness is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s,” says Rudolph Tanzi, PhD, professor of neurology at Harvard University and director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Aging and Genetics Research Unit. “And studies show that people with strong support networks, family, and friends have better health.” In a 2011 Rush University study, adults age 65 and over who were most socially active had a 70 percent lower risk of developing dementia than their least socially active peers. “When you talk to other people, you have to think about how you’re going to respond. That’s another source of blood flow to the brain,” says Caccappolo. Avoid these 16 everyday habits that can raise your risk of dementia.
Learning new things
Challenging your brain is good—but challenging it in completely new ways is even better when it comes to preventing or slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. “There’s a value in doing something different from what you normally do,” says Dr. Tariot. So if you’re a champion crossword-puzzle solver, keep it up, but also try switching to another kind of puzzle every so often. Learning new things—a new language, a musical instrument, a sport, a complicated game like chess—helps increase the number of brain synapses (the parts of the nerve cell that transmit impulses to other cells). These cells can decrease with age and with Alzheimer’s disease. “So the more synapses you make and strengthen by learning new things, the more you can afford to lose later,” explains Tanzi. “It’s like putting money in the bank, but for your brain.”